Flash Fiction: Syd and Nancy

Flickr cc Chichacha

Flickr cc Chichacha

“Good morning, Australia!” Ben beamed as he looked up from his bowl of Shredded Wheat. “How’s my favorite Aussie this morning?”

“No talk. Coffee no kicked in. And I’m not an Aussie and I don’t like to be called Australia. You know I hate to be reminded of the whys behind my parents’ ridiculous choice when it came to christening their first child. It’s like they needed to read How to Name Your Child for Dummies before being allowed near my birth certificate.” She rolled her eyes while refilling her white ceramic mug for the second time in the last 10 minutes.

“Your parents named you after their favorite vacation destination. And since they’ve traveled more than most cruise directors, naming you after their favorite little corner of the globe doesn’t seem stupid. It’s kind of sweet. Maybe they thought having you was as wonderful as a trip to Australia.”

“Sweet? Sydney, Australia was their honeymoon destination. They practically named me Honeymoon Baby. I’m forever saddled with the reminder that my parents knew a thing or two about ‘the birds and the bees.’ They might as well have named me Hot Night in the Hotel in Sydney.

“Hot Night in a Hotel — hey, I like it!”

“You know you shouldn’t provoke me,” Sydney said with her usual morning glare. “I’m not responsible for anything I do or say before 8am.”

“You know, you would’ve still been saddled with a reminder that your parents had some after-dinner fun, even if they hadn’t chosen to name you after their honeymoon. Being alive in and of itself — well, besides I guess for the few folks who started off in petri dishes — is a reminder of their parents and the birds and the bees. Yeah, it’s kind of weird. But most people just don’t obsess over it.”

“I’m not obsessing. It’s my kinky parents who decided to proclaim to the world forevermore that I was the result of their honeymoon. It’s as if I have to put Honeymoon Baby on applications.”

“No, it’s really not like that at all.”

“Yes, it is! The kinky freaks.”

“Maybe they weren’t announcing it. Maybe they just really liked Australia. And maybe you’re reading too much into this because you’re just having coffee for breakfast. Here, have some of my scrambled eggs.” Ben scooped some of his eggs onto Sydney’s plate, which had previously been occupied by a solitary piece of nearly-burnt toast. “Maybe your parents didn’t want any of their grandparents worrying it had been a shotgun oh-my-god-she’s-pregnant wedding?”

“They’d been living together for years before finally getting hitched.”

“Oh that’s right. Scratch that theory then. Why are we even talking about your parents’ sex life? This doesn’t exactly make good breakfast-time conversation. I think I’m losing my appetite.”

“Imagine how I feel — every single day.”

“Guess it explains why you only have coffee for breakfast. I’m not sure why you’re so worked up about this today though. You’ve had 32 years to process the fact that your parents, at least once in their married lives, had sex.”

“Don’t give me that, Ben. You’re the one who brought it up!”

“Okay-okay. Just drink your coffee and don’t bite anyone. I promise I won’t call you Australia again. I was just trying to come up with a cutesy nickname. Isn’t that what couples do? And we’ve been living together for almost five years and I still don’t have a sickeningly sweet thing to call you. But Hot Night in a Hotel is currently a finalist.”

“You’re impossible.”

“I could call you Syd.”

“Now I sound like Sid Vicious! I’d rather be named after a honeymoon than a psychopath.”

“I’ll make a mental note of it. Well, on a less bizarre note, we need to do laundry sometime this week. I’m almost out of work shirts. I’ll run the wash if you fold them.”

“Deal. I’m at the dregs, too. I’m almost out of underwear — had to wear the sexy ones today.”

“Having to wear the sexy undies because you’re almost out: that pretty much sums up marriage,” Ben said with a teasing wink. “And you wonder why your parents wanted to remember their hot night in Sydney?”

“Whatever, Nancy.” Sydney rolled her eyes again and took a bite of her scrambled eggs.

When You Feel Responsible for Other People’s Damnation

Flickr cc Logan Ingalls

Flickr cc Logan Ingalls

When I was a scrawny, awkward seventh grader who had not yet gotten used to her abnormally long arms and legs, my Sunday school teachers decided we were going to learn about proselytizing (or what my teachers would’ve called “evangelism” or “outreach”).

One of my teachers plopped the VHS in and pushed play — we were going to begin our religious education on the subject at hand with a movie. It was a very dated ’80s film that was cheesy in all the ways that most religious movies are. And equally scary in the way most religious movies are, too.

*****

 The uplifting film was about a car load of teens who crashed and, instantly, die. Or at least I hope it was instant.

The teens — who all looked like they were auditioning for The Breakfast Club but on account of their acting chops wouldn’t have made the cut — all waited in line at what looked like the DMV, but I guess was the entrance to Heaven. Eventually, each one was called up to talk to the man at the desk with the clunky old computer. He looked their names up in the Heaven database and, then, directed them accordingly the way the person working at the front desk of the hotel lobby points you in the direction of your room. However, the first four teens had not previously booked rooms at the Pearly Gates Hotel, and space was limited; they were each denied as the computer failed to recognize their names. They were shocked, dumbfounded, terrified.

The fifth teen hesitantly made his way to the old man at the computer. However, unlike his companions, he wasn’t looking scared so much as ashamed as he gave his name and then — unlike any of his friends — was told his room was waiting for him. He was the only Christian in the group, and he’d never taken the time to talk with any of his crash-mates about Jesus. Not even once. Can you imagine?

“Why didn’t you tell us about Jesus? We would have listened!” his friends screamed as the security guards came to escort them off the premises, to literally pull them kicking and screaming off to Hell; the man at the computer looked completely unfazed by the display of fear and hysteria in the lobby. Just another day at work.

They hadn’t even known they were going to Hell; they didn’t know they needed to make a reservation ahead of time. And if their so-called “friend” would’ve just taken a few minutes to talk to them about Jesus, he could’ve changed the course of their eternal destiny. But, instead, they’d spend eternity roasting. And it was all his fault.

The film ended with the Christian teen sadly, guiltily walking through the gates of Heaven … the eternal destinies of his four friends weighing forever on his conscious. He would no doubt spend eternity strolling the golden streets alone as the guilt and remorse ravaged his never-dying soul.

It seemed that not one of the five teens would have any taste of Paradise in the afterlife.

*****

Despite the dreadful overacting and lousy special effects, it was horrible and terrifying to my seventh-grade self. That film gave me more nightmares than Ursula the Sea Witch and that T-Rex in Jurassic Park that eats the man right off the Honey Bucket combined.

The brief Sunday school lesson after the film was basically that this is what would happen if we didn’t tell everyone we knew about Jesus and tried to invite them to church. The basic message: bring your friends to youth group or else suffer the eternal consequences. Yikes!

In my church experience (and I can’t say how many other people have had similar experiences), I feel like a lot of times the guilt card was pulled out when they wanted the youth to do something specific like bring their friends to kids’ church or youth group or they wanted us to participate in a church activity involving some form of evangelism. Guilt, shame, and fear were used as motivation. I wonder if they ever thought about what the consequences of their scare tactics might be.

****

Being personally responsible for other people’s damnation was something I worried about all the time as a kid thanks to these lessons at church. I routinely had nightmares about friends or family members saying “Kelsey, why didn’t you ever tell me? I would’ve listened!” and knowing it was all my fault as I watched them being dragged off to Hell. It was terrifying.

As a result, when I was much younger — early elementary school — I used to try to barter with God over my cousins’ eternal destiny (since they were family, it seemed like I ought to take personal responsibility for their souls in case no one else did). I didn’t think I could get more than two souls for the price of mine. And there were two of them, so it was worth a shot.

Just like the Christian teen in the video who’d sadly walked in to Heaven, I didn’t think it’d be possible to really enjoy Heaven if someone else’s eternal fate was weighing on me forever. And it didn’t seem weird to try and barter with God over someone’s salvation when that’s what my whole faith was based around: God (Jesus) successfully bartering with himself over the fate of humanity. Or at least that’s how I understood it as a little kiddo.

A friend of mine said something very insightful recently: she said you should listen to the theology of children because, even though that might not be exactly what the adults believe, they pick up on the undercurrents within a church or denomination, perhaps even better than the adults. (My poor parents — they had no idea the level of crap I was being exposed to in youth group. They thought I was more about to be taught that I was valued and loved rather than made to feel guilty or scared.) And while adults would look at my theology as a child and think it’s sad or maybe funny, it was the direct result of what I was learning from my adult Sunday school teachers. Yes, they weren’t specifically teaching me to try and barter my salvation-slip away, but they were teaching me that Heaven wasn’t going to be heavenly as a result of being personally responsible for other people’s eternal fates. If someone hasn’t grown up in a similar setting, I can’t imagine that they’d ever be able to fully comprehend just how terrifying that is.

Sometimes the Christians that feel an undying passion to “save your soul” can be annoying — sometimes really annoying, especially if it involves a bullhorn or too many impromptu religious speeches. Some of them just seem jerky and rude, and sometimes that’s because they are. But sometimes the pushy, awkward soul-savers are trying to get your butt in church this coming Sunday because they’re literally afraid they’re going to have to watch you kicking and screaming as you’re being dragged off to Hell, and that it’ll be on their conscience. Forever.

While I often find their “outreach” tactics as annoying as anyone else, my heart goes out to them. I know what it’s like to have that level of guilt and fear weighing on your chest like the protective lead blankets the nurse clips around your neck before your X-ray; it’s so heavy you can barely move. The fate of other people’s souls is a weighty thing to have clipped around your neck, especially when you’re just a kid.

I’m guest posting for a funeral director

And now for something completely different …

I wrote a guest post for Caleb Wilde’s blog Confessions of a Funeral Director. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Caleb or his blog, he’s a sixth-generation licensed funeral director and embalmer who lives in Pennsylvania, USA. And, not surprisingly, covers all kinds of death-related topics on his blog. It’s fascinating, really.

I wrote about the day I planned Wonder Woman’s funeral:

“Today we’re going to get into small groups,” my thanatology teacher announced, handing out a list of questions. The challenge: planning Wonder Woman’s funeral.

Wonder Woman, according to our assignment, had tragically passed away after many years of kicking butt as a sexy crime fighting crusader in the name of justice. Because she was loved the world over, Ms. Wonder Woman’s only direct request was that her body disposition (what’s done to the body), final disposition (the body’s final resting place), and funeral service equally include all of the many unique death-related practices without offending or marginalizing any of the inhabitants of the earth.

The request was sweet … but not exactly simple.

(Continue reading)

Flash Fiction: Pretty Shoes

Daaaaaddy!” whined four-year-old Alisa. Her small hands on her small hips, a mess of brown curls piled on top of her head and topped off with an off-center, droopy bow. She’d taken charge of her own hair this morning. “I wanna go to kindergarten! I’m ready!”

Flickr cc allthecolor

Flickr cc allthecolorI’m ready!”

“We’ll leave in just a few minutes, Sweetie,” said Mr. King, sitting on their blue over-stuffed couch, remote in hand. “Daddy just needs to figure out what today’s forecast is first so I know whether we need to grab your boots.”

“But I wanted to wear my pretty shoes.” Alisa sighed, looking down at her solitary pink and sparkly Mary Jane that she’d carefully paired with her shiny black tap shoe. She’d picked out her shoes as well.

“Maybe you can. We just need to see what the forecast says first, Sweetie. I promise if you can’t wear them today, you’ll get to wear whatever shoes you like the first nice day we have.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise. And you’ll still get to wear everything else you picked out for today, even if you have to wear boots instead. And your rainbow-striped tights look beautiful with your green tutu.” Alisa looked down at her outfit and smiled proudly, and then hopped on the couch next to her dad. “Oh, here’s the forecast, Alisa. We’ll know in just a second …”

“After how nice it was to spend an entire week enjoying the warm sand between your toes at the beach or strolling barefoot in the park, the next few days will likely be a disappointment,” Silvia Proudmoore, the local newscaster, began in a matter-of-fact tone. She was known for wearing peach polyester suits and not beating around the bush when it came to disappointing weather predictions. “The rest of this week will definitely be boots weather for everyone. Grownups, too. So don’t leave home without your pair this morning. But there’s something to look forward to in the not too-distant forecast because starting next Monday some more nice days are headed our way. You’ll even be able to –“

Click. Mr. King pushed the power button on the remote. Alisa pouted, pushing her pink lower lip out as far as it would possibly go. “This isn’t something to pout about, Sweetheart. Even daddy has to wear his boots, and you know how funny they look with my suit. The people at the office might even make fun,” he made a dramatic pouty face as he gestured at his imaginary tease-worthy outfit in an attempt to cheer Alisa up. It didn’t work. “Everyone has to wear them, you know that. You heard the lady on the TV; it’s boots weather.”

“Okay,” said Alisa with a sulk. “But I can wear my pretty shoes next week?”

“Yes, you can wear whichever pretty shoes you like next week. But for the next few days you’re going to have to wear boots, just like everyone else.”

Alisa looked down at her outfit. Without the shoes it would no longer be the artistic masterpiece she’d envisioned. “Can I wear my yellow rain jacket today?” It wasn’t as good as the pretty shoes, but it’d help make up for their absence a little.

“Of course, you can, Sweetie. But it’s not raining outside, you might get warm in it.” And with that he strapped the heavy gray boots onto Alisa’s tiny rainbow-clad feet, pushing the red glowing button on the side of each boot to activate them. “Okay, you’re ready to go.” He picked Alisa up off the couch and put her on the ground.

“I hate boots,” she said, continuing to sulk. “They’re too heavy. And it’s hard to walk.” She demonstrated this by slowly shuffling around the living room, barely able lift her feet even an inch off the carpet.

“It’s better than floating off into space now, isn’t it?” her dad said with a playful wink. But it wasn’t really a joke. “No one likes to wear boots, Sweetie, but until the forecast clears up it’s what everyone has to do. It’s not safe to go outside without them until the gravity comes back.”

“Pretty shoes next week,” Alisa said with a sigh, grabbing her yellow rain slicker, even though the sun was shining, and her bright pink lunch box.

“Pretty shoes next week,” Mr. King said reassuringly.

And with a heavy, metallic clop clop clop they walked hand-in-hand out the front door.

Sunday Morning Polaroid: Or that Time I Heard a Woman Preach

Flickr cc frank

Flickr cc frank

I don’t find myself sitting in a pew at 9am on a Sunday morning very often. Usually, I’d still be sitting in bed, eating a bowl of cold cereal and sipping chamomile tea out of my Yellow Submarine mug. I’ve privately self-identified as a “churchless Christian” for a number of years, which doesn’t mean I take my faith less seriously but it does mean that church programs are, at least for this season in my life, nowhere to be found on my planner (but that’s fodder for another post).

But there I was — sitting in a pew near the back of a small Lutheran church, bright and early on a Sunday morning.

I’d gone there to see Greg — he’s the pastor who married the Mr. Man and me nearly a year ago — because he’d just transferred to being the senior pastor of another church within the denomination. A little church that I hadn’t visited yet. Personally, I tend to be a little weary of pastors; I’ve had some pretty rotten luck with more than my share in the past. But I trust Greg, and for me that’s huge. I ask him for book recommendations and, when my life recently smashed headlong into a brick-wall-of-a-crisis, he’s the first person I called.

But, to my disappointment, Greg wasn’t teaching that day. They were having a missionary speak, some Lutheran pastor working in Eastern Europe.

She’d spent a bit of time in Hungary, which perked my interest; I lived in Hungary for three and a half months back in 2005. And most people I know are more apt to hit up England, France, and Italy while globetrottering in Europe than dear old Hungary (although, you really should pay it a visit — I tell ya, you’re missing out).

I don’t remember exactly what the pastor talked about that morning. Something about making use of the chances we have to show love and compassion to the people around us, whatever those opportunities might look like. I remember it helped me to see my blog as a chance to show love by sharing my story of spiritual abuse and, hopefully, helping others to feel a little less alone rather than just a bunch of stories I should probably be telling to a therapist.

But what I remember the most about that Sunday morning is sitting two rows behind the pastor’s husband and two small children. I got more out of that little live Polaroid than I’ve gotten out of most sermons I’ve sat through or books on theology I’ve read.

*****

The oldest child, only a couple of years old, wasn’t really listening to Mommy preach. But I don’t really blame her because sitting through a sermon when you’re that young, even or perhaps especially when it’s your parent preaching, is hard. She fingered the covers of the hymnals in front of her, twisted around in her seat to survey the small sanctuary as best she could from such a low height, and then snuggled right up next to her daddy like she was getting ready for a nice, comfy nap.

The baby was snuggled up, too. She was on their dad’s shoulder, big eyes staring at the people in the rows behind. And sometimes acting shy when the two older white-haired women sitting behind them waved and smiled in the way people always flirt with adorable babies. Sometimes Baby stared at me; babies often stare at me. (My theory is that the smallest humans think I have exquisite taste when it comes to glasses, but maybe they just think I look funny.)

At one point during the sermon Baby started crying, so the dad took Baby out into the lobby to dance and bounce. The pastor, Baby’s mommy, shot Baby a look of concern — she’d known it was her baby crying before she’d even seen her. And the two white-haired women proceeded to dote, in true grandmother fashion, on the little girl while her Mini-Me was being cheered by Dad.

It doesn’t sound dramatic, revolutionary, or even noteworthy, really. But it was for me. And while I doubt any of the stars of my Polaroid even remember this specific snapshot, I remember it.

*****

At my ex-church women not only weren’t allowed to be pastors, but any church that had ordination standards that extended to women was considered a “bad church” and the members’ religious devotion and even salvation was called into question (Jesus’ blood spilt for all — well, providing your clergy all have what we consider to be the correct genitalia).

Members of my ex-church would’ve labeled the visiting pastor an “unsubmissive” woman, which in their minds would’ve completely diminished her strong faith, character, and years of academic study while in seminary. They likely would’ve said she was going against “what the bible clearly says” or was being “unbiblical.” Both common catch phrases which were used as if they were theological trump cards — but really meant that any further conversation or agreeing to disagree were out of the question.

I feel like at least as far as my ex-church goes, I can’t speak for other churches, a lot of this came from them failing to acknowledge that, as blogger Boze Herrington recently wrote on Facebook, “Christianity is a diverse faith with a wide spectrum of beliefs.” If the bible were truly so crystal clear, there wouldn’t be so many different interpretations. And, boy, are there ever a lot of different interpretations. Therefore, in my mind, when I hear someone say “the bible clearly says” what I hear is “this is what I happen to think the bible means” because that’s, honestly, the best any of us can do when it comes to this whole messy, complex business called theology.

I guess the only thing I really feel clear on is that: Jesus loves me and he equally loves people that I can’t even begin to stand and would really rather not include in the Jesus-loves-us circle. Everything else, well, I could be totally and utterly wrong on — or maybe I’m right. And maybe it doesn’t matter that much; maybe it’s more about showing love than trying to figure out every little detail of my creed. Maybe I’d get a lot of it wrong in the end, anyway. I saw a comic once where an old balding, white-haired God sat reading a book entitled “Theology” and laughing so hard tears streamed down his face; that’s what I try to remind myself of when I start thinking I’m hot stuff or have any of this figured out.

As a result of my ex-church’s failing to acknowledge how vast, complex, and messy the world of modern Christendom truly is, I think it left a lot of people feeling out in the cold just because they weren’t that specific brand of Christian — they checked a different name on their ballot or their pastor was a different gender or their church tradition looked different or whatever. They were different, so they weren’t truly Christians.

*****

So what I loved the most about sitting there that Sunday morning was how I felt accepted. I wasn’t a “bad Christian” or a “backslidden Christian” because I loved the fact that the visiting pastor was a woman. I was just someone else sitting in a pew listening to the sermon, trying to learn how to be a little less selfish and ornery and a little more charitable, and making silly faces at the adorable baby in front of me. I was just me, and that was okay.

I didn’t hear anyone gossip that the pastor was a bad mother or a bad wife or a bad woman or maybe just a downright horrible, no-good Christian who even longsuffering Jesus couldn’t stand. People just listened, a few took notes. I didn’t hear anyone gossip about the pastor’s husband — no one said he was a wimpy, feminized Christian man who didn’t take his faith or his family seriously. No one said he was whipped by his obviously overbearing wife. He clearly cared about his children very much; he was supportive of his wife. And those are both incredibly good things. His wife was well-educated and took her faith seriously and worried when her baby cried like any good parent would. And those are all incredibly good things.

My little Polaroid of their family was so novel to me because it didn’t seem novel to anyone else. And there was something about sitting there in the not-novelness of it all that was somehow a little healing. Maybe I’m a little more Lutheran than I’d thought.

More Posts of a Similar Vein: 

Further Reading: If, like me, you can count on one hand all of the women pastors you’ve heard of but the men pastors can’t even begin to be numbered, you might appreciate the book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, another pastor who happens to be Lutheran. It’s also just a brilliant, raw, beautiful, laugh-out-loud funny essay book, regardless of your spiritual persuasion. Give it a try.

Flash Fiction: Backsliders Anonymous

Flickr cc John Lambert Pearson

Flickr cc John Lambert Pearson

“Good evening, everyone!” Cheryl said, greeting the dozen folding chairs arranged in a circle, half of which were actually in use, with her regular cheerleader-esque pep. The blonde woman in three-inch heals and a light pink suit was precariously holding a plate of oatmeal cookies in her right hand and an intimidatingly large stack of still-warm-from-the-church-printer handouts in her left. She looked like a Mary Kay representative turned tenured professor.

“It looks like we have a new member!”

“Hey,” a girl sporting a hoodie and jeans combo said with a nod of acknowledgement in Cheryl’s direction. The rest of the backsliders stared at the stitching on their shoes. “I’m Laura,” said the hoodie girl. “My dad made me come.”

“Wonderful!” Cheryl exclaimed as she sat the amoeba-shaped cookies down on the table by a pitcher of room-temperature orange juice. No one found themselves in the church basement of Second Church of Faith on a Wednesday night looking at their shoes because of the food. No one came for the food, not even Adam, a tall, skinny man whose sweaters all looked like they’d likely made regular guest appearances on The Cosby Show. Although, he wasn’t quite sure why he was here, to be honest. Or why he’d come the week before. Or the week before that. Or the week before that.

Adam’s weekly bible study had held an intervention one Monday — demanding, in unison, that he take immediate, drastic action in dealing with his blackslidden ways. Cheryl said the first step was admitting you had a problem but, despite sitting in his usual chair every Wednesday evening for the past few weeks, he hadn’t gotten there yet. His entire bible study group thought he had a problem, so he just kept coming. He must have a problem. But he just couldn’t see his problem yet, not for himself.

So he continued coming, hoping one of these weeks it’d finally click why it was so bad that he’d said during Monday night bible study that he didn’t bother with daily devotions — reading through three chapters in his bible a day, with the goal being to work his way through the entire book every year, and closing it up with a prayer that was exactly fifteen-minutes long. It was the Second Church of Faith way; it’s what everyone did or at least said they were attempting to do. Well, everyone except Adam, he wasn’t even trying.

“Adam,” Cheryl asked with an abnormally big smile, “why don’t you get us started?”

“Hello, my name is Adam,” said Adam. “And I’m a backslider — or at least that’s what the folks in my bible study seem to think. I dunno. Maybe I’m just a different type of Christian, ya know? ‘Daily devotions’ just feel too forced, too rigid for my liking.”

“Lovely, Adam,” Cheryl’s smile began to resemble a bad botox job as it became tighter, more forced. “Thank you for being so honest and open. Just keep coming, and you’ll get there.”

“But I’m not convinced skipping ‘daily devotions’ is such a bad thing,” said Adam, he was the Backsliders Anonymous member Cheryl found the most challenging to deal with. “It’s not like I never read my bible or pray — I pray when I take my dog, Otis, walking. It feels more organic. Why doesn’t that count?”

“Why don’t we try to keep on task this week, Adam. We want everyone to have a chance to talk. Now, how long has it been since you last backslid?”

“How long has it been since I last missed my last ‘daily devotion?’ Uh, I dunno. A couple of days.”

“Well, that’s a start, Adam. Although, you really need to start using the daily check sheet I printed out for you last week, otherwise you won’t know how you’re really doing. Just check the box next to the date every time you’re victorious. It’ll help keep you accountable and eventually will inspire you to keep going when you see how many check marks you’ve made. And inspiration and recovery is what we’re about here at Backsliders Anonymous!”

“But I don’t like checklists. They make me feel guilt-tripped into ‘spending time with God.’ Maybe I’m not the daily devotional sort of Christian?”

“Adam, just because you’ve slipped up doesn’t mean you’re not ‘the daily devotional sort’ — God wants us all to be that sort. Just remember, there’s always hope.”

“I guess so. But I don’t always like reading the bible. It’s kinda dry. And some of the stuff in the Old Testament is creepy — like, the woman who’s cut into little bite-sized pieces and her pieces are sent off like some gross Old Testament version of the three-days-to-pay-or-we-evict notices my apartment’s always taping on people’s doors. What’s up with that? It’s like reading something right out of a slasher film!”

“Adam!” The pitch of Cheryl’s voice rose as if he’d just sworn in the middle of Pastor’s 20 minute Sunday prayer. “This is not the place for that kind of question — we’ve talked about that before, remember? Backsliders Anonymous is a safe place to find support as you work towards spiritual recovery. I think we need to remember why we’re here. Everyone, repeat with me:”

“I will read my bible and pray, every single day,” five of the six backsliders dutifully repeated in unison, even Adam. Although, his bushy eyebrows now seemed to be frustrated and his brown eyes seemed to feel trapped, as if they were looking for the fire escape.

Laura, the newest addition to the church flunkies, hadn’t joined in on the chant. She sat there, leaning back in her uncomfortable metal chair with her skinny high schooler arms crossed in a mix of apathy and defiance.

“What if I don’t want to talk to God?” Laura asked after the chant had ended.

The circle of metal chairs was silent.

“Laura, that’s great you’re being so honest and open already!” Cheryl encouraged with her unique style of intensity that made Laura wonder if she was high or had just ingested a few too many shots of espresso that morning. “It’s good to be open, however, the goal of this meeting — as your father has likely already instructed you — is to help you to recover spiritually from your backsliddeness. And the first step of this journey is admitting you have a problem.”

“But I don’t have a problem,” Laura said with a shrug.

“My dear, your father has signed you up for our weekly meetings because you’ve become backslidden in your faith. That means that you have a problem. A serious problem! But this is a safe place because everyone here has a spiritual problem,” Cheryl paused, “Well, almost everyone.” She smiled to herself.

“What if I don’t want to ‘recover spiritually?’ What if I think God’s just a jackass who lets bad things happen to good people — people like my mom?”

Cheryl squished her face together as if she’d just eaten something sour. But she knew how to handle such outright defiance, and with that she dropped an inch-thick pack of paper in Laura’s lap. “There,” she said. “That’s your homework for this week. No more off-topic questions until you’ve read that. Now,” turning to the other five church-basement prisoners, “does anyone else have any questions?”

After a pause, Cheryl felt like she’d successfully gotten the group back on track. “Now that we’re done with silly questions for the evening, let’s move on to the important business. Joe, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us how long it’s been since you’ve last backslidden.”

And with that, Adam and Laura joined the rest of the backsliders in analyzing the workmanship of their sneakers.

A Creative Little Girl

Flickr cc Lauren Manning

Flickr cc Lauren Manning

Once there was a little girl. A creative little girl.

She sketched foreign alien planets with deep craters and rocket ships made out of pencils blasting into space. She created clown costumes out of cardboard, construction paper, doilies, and oodles of scotch tape. She molded fantasy and sci-fic inspired creatures based on the pictures in her head. She created a treasure chest out of aluminum foil, over-sized beads, and glue. She drew raw, sometimes grisly pictures advocating the fight against poverty. She danced, carefully, to a record while imagining she was a princess in a far away land.

Once there was a little girl. A confident little girl.

Her paintings and sketches were likely never destined to hang in a great art gallery, but that didn’t bother her. Her work was creative, original, beautiful and she knew it. Her biggest concern, when it came to her artistic endeavors, was that her little brother would “copy” her. Her art wasn’t done for praises; she never had a chance of winning a drawing contest because she always submitted her second-best piece; why would she part with her best one?

Once there was a little girl. A courageous little girl.

A little girl who wasn’t afraid to proudly showcase her artwork on her wall. A little girl who sang at the top of her lungs. A little girl who was thrilled to try something new, whether it was woodworking, oil pastels, or writing a character with a British accent. A little girl who could cut and glue and draw and tape without the fear of whether the end result would be “good enough.”

Once there was a little girl. A creative, confident,  courageous little girl. And something horrible happened: she learned about artists.

She learned a terrible fun-killing word — artist. She learned that some people were “artists” — talented, special, gifted people whose “art” didn’t look anything like her play. She learned that grownups don’t play with color or imagine whimsical worlds or cut up construction paper for fun; not unless they were an artist.

Once there was a little girl. A creative, confident, courageous little girl. And something horrible happened: she grew up.

As she packed up her dollies and teddy bears, she also packed up her paints and her scissors. She packed up her sketch books and her glitter. She packed up her yarn and her Play-Doh. She packed up her markers and her costumes. But worst of all, she packed up her creativity, her confidence,  her courage.

Once there was a now-grownup little girl. A self-conscious now-grownup little girl.

She no longer believed anyone would “copy” her; now she feared they’d judge her. She no longer called it play; now she called it art. She no longer wanted to try anything she could; now she limited herself to the few things she thought she was “actually good at.”

Once there was a now-grownup little girl. A nervous, curious now-grownup little girl.

She was introduced to a new type of play; at first she could only copy what other people had made because she was too scared she’d do it “wrong.”  She practiced collaging; remembering, slowly, how fun an afternoon spent with scissors and glue could be.

She cautiously stepped out again; this time she tried something very scary. She practiced writing fiction; remembering, slowly, how fun it was to make up characters and whole other worlds.

She called it “entertainment,” but knew that, unlike entertainment, it made her feel whole. She called herself “not-an-artist,” because she felt she needed to differentiate herself from the “real artists.” She called it “therapeutic,” which is just a grownup word for a nice way to spend an evening. She called it “practice,” which is just a grownup word for play.

Once there was a now-grownup little girl. A creative, almost confident, closer-to-being courageous  now-grownup little girl.

She’d forgotten so many things about color, fantasy, and play as she’d grownup, including the most important thing: it was fun. And remembering that, made all the difference.

Flash Fiction: Until Death

Flickr cc Wally Gobetz

Flickr cc Wally Gobetz

“Your Majesty, King Umfrey, Protector and Ruler of the Known World,” Bacwin the prophet, wearing a brown hooded cloak and holding a carved oak staff, began in his usual halting voice, “and Lady Avelia, the Blood-Path Ceremony has begun. My Lord, take the Lady Avelia’s hand and escort her through the pieces.”

The severed remains of three heifers, five goats, and a dozen turtledoves lay in two straight, gruesome lines—the heads and front legs on the right, back legs and back ends on the left. The grassy field behind the Ocean Blue Palace—the gods demanded that all covenants be cut under the sky—was drenched with deep red blood.  All marriage covenants within the Known World were cut by severing animals, usually only one of each kind, but when a king was married there were so many freshly killed animals that the bride and groom had to walk through entrails and pools of blood.

Avelia tried, but it was useless, to keep her elegantly embroidered crushed-velvet skirt out of the carnage.  Brides never wore their deep crimson wedding gowns again; after the wedding ceremony was over, it was impossible to get the blood and stench out.

 

The People of the Known World believed that blood is powerful, spiritual.  The red bridal gown represented the cutting of a covenant in the sight of the gods as well as virginity; the groom’s parents would check the sheets the morning after the wedding night and if there wasn’t evidence that she’d bled, they could demand a higher bride price or have her stoned that afternoon.  Therefore, it was common for a bride to sneak a small knife or sewing needle into her bedroom so that, after her husband had fallen asleep, she could insure there was a large enough stain to satisfy her in-laws.

But Avelia wouldn’t be packing a knife or needle; she’d been married before. On her left hand was a gold memorial ring with a black gemstone, dedicated to her newly deceased husband, Gerard.  The inscription on the inside read: “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.”

It’d only been a month since her husband Gerard, a soldier in the King’s army, had died in a battle on the Great Sea. Every time Gerard had left to fight in a battle he’d taken a few strands of Avelia’s black hair that he’d kept in his coin purse; he’d claimed her hair would bring him luck that would help him return to her.  But it hadn’t worked this time.

Avelia had put away her black-lace mourning veil that very afternoon. She hadn’t worn it for the mandatory year prescribed to widows, but even tradition can’t argue with the King of the Known World.

 

The December air was cold and the sea breeze was strong as King Umfrey and Avelia slowly walked down the Blood-Path.  Weddings were somber; everyone was silent; there was no music, only the light sound of rain.  Occasionally, one of the guards would scare off a bird that had decided the new flesh looked appetizing.  Or someone would swat at the flies.

Old Bacwin tapped his staff on the ground to call the crowd’s attention as the couple arrived at the end of the Blood-Path. “We are gathered here, as the Great God of the Sea and the many other gods look down upon us, to witness the cutting of a marriage covenant.  Exchange your robes.”

Avelia gave the King her blood-red cloak, which he put on; in addition to being traditional bridal attire, the color helped to hide the actual blood it’d been dragged through.  The King gave Avelia his midnight-blue robe with a great fish embroidered on the back and fur around the collar, and she put it on; the King of the Known World never wore anything other deep blue, except briefly at his wedding when he wore his bride’s cloak, because the Ocean Blue Palace overlooked the Great Sea, and most of the local commerce was focused around fishing.

“You have exchanged robes with each other as a sign of your new covenantal oneness.  You have exchanged identities. Two have become one,” Bacwin pronounced.

“Two have become one,” the crowd of witnesses repeated the traditional words.

“Now the bride and groom must share a meal,” Bacwin directed.

A single chalice of red wine and a solitary plate with baked fish and potatoes was presented to the King and Avelia. They took turns feeding each other and holding up the chalice so the other could drink.

When they were finished with their meal, Bacwin pronounced: “Two have become one.”

“Two have become one,” echoed the crowd loudly.

“Exchange weapons and recite your vows.”

The King presented Avelia with one of his swords: “You are mine, and I belong to you until the sea claims me; there will be no one else but you; your people are my people; your descendants, my descendants; your gods, my gods; your battles, my battles.”

Avelia gave King Umfrey her bow and arrows, although she’d never been very good with them: “You are mine, and I belong to you until the sea claims me; there will be no one else but you; your people are my people; your descendants, my descendants; your gods, my gods; your battles, my battles.”

“You have walked into death through the Blood-Path Ceremony,” Bacwin began again in his haggard voice.  “Should either one of you break your covenant to the other, may the gods strike you down and tear you into pieces like these animals laying before us. And then, may your remains be devoured by birds of the air and flies.  May your body never find rest in the sea.  If you agree, say ‘May it be done unto me.’”

The King and Avelia repeated in unison.

“A marriage covenant is like the Great Sea; it can bring many life-preserving blessings from the Great God of the Sea and all of the other gods, but it can also bring death and destruction.  Should you break this solemn, holy covenant you have cut this day, you will be cursed to die.  In the name of the gods, the only thing that can ever break the covenant—which now binds this man and this woman together in one body and soul—is death.  You belong to each other until the sea claims one of you.”

King Umfrey was well aware that death was the only way to dissolve a covenant.  He’d seen Avelia, with her perfect ebony skin and waist-length midnight hair, watching a tournament with her husband only a few months before; he’d inquired who she was, and then had hired one of his most loyal guards to slit Gerard’s throat when he returned to fight for his King in the battle with the Kingdom Across the Sea.

And then, when the battle was over, the King had announced to his people that in order to honor the memory of one of his brave soldiers, he was taking Gerard’s widow for his wife.  The people were enamored with their gracious ruler.

In the sight of the Great God of the Sea and all of the other gods, Avelia had been released from her marriage covenant to Gerard; the sea had claimed him.

King Umfrey knew she’d been freed by death; now, his until death.

 

“The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.”

Sometimes

Flickr cc Tanya

Flickr cc Tanya

Sometimes a crisis means the world at large is crumbling around us on the nightly news; sometimes it means only your world — or mine. Sometimes pain is physical; sometimes it’s watching your dreams burn and not knowing if you’ll ever be able to carefully pick a few of them out of the ashes. Sometimes mourning means wearing black at a funeral; sometimes it’s walking through the grocery store without the clerk noticing how the flesh encasing your heart has been removed.

Sometimes courage is having hard conversations when you’d rather befriend the silence. Sometimes strength is pulling yourself out of bed and forcing yourself in the shower. Sometimes wisdom is not allowing yourself to think beyond today. Sometimes hope is putting on mascara with the belief that someday, maybe far off or maybe not, you’ll make it through a day without it running. Sometimes faith is the belief that even though you feel like you’re coming apart at the heart-seams, you’ll somehow, in the end, survive — but not without scars.

Sometimes it’s the unknowns that are the scariest. Sometimes crowds are the loneliness. Sometimes the worst part is waking up from a nightmare and realizing that, sadly, it’s not just a dream.

Sometimes finding yourself looks like saying “I,” and meaning it. Sometimes love looks like a willingness to say goodbye. Sometimes bravery looks like entertaining the possibility of new dreams. Sometimes miracles look like going to counseling. Sometimes fortitude looks like deciding to do what’s right for you, even if others don’t understand. Sometimes spirituality looks like finding comfort among the crisp wind and autumn leaves.

Sometimes.

Flash Fiction: I-Candy

Flickr cc Caitlin Doe

Flickr cc Caitlin Doe

Cherry absentmindedly twirled a pencil between her fingers as she stared off into space, impatiently waiting for her morning coffee to finally give her the jump start she needed to make it through yet another dull work day.

She’d been a cubical dweller at the call center for two years now — same old, same old day in and day out. Customers always had the same questions, the same problems. Peach, her cubical neighbor, always ate the same ham sandwich for lunch, she never even spiced things up by adding mustard. And the water cooler gossip was always the same — so-and-so was lazy and probably was faking being sick that day and no-one-cares-who just went through a breakup or had a baby or did something equally normal. The monotonousness of it all was mind numbing.

But then, the phone rang …

Cherry blinked, trying to wake up, while forcing a manic, playful smile onto her face before answering the phone in her best Malibu Barbie voice: “Thank you for calling I-Candy, this is Cherry speaking.”

“Seriously?” the woman on the other end of the line said sarcastically. “Your name is Cherry?”

“Uh, well, no — uh,” said Cherry. Normally customers seemed to like her work-assigned name. And besides, all the customer service girls had them. Attempting to return to her usual script Cherry said: “If you order a six-month cam subscription today, we’ll throw in an I-Candy calendar for free! That’s a $30 savings!”

“No, I will not be needing a calendar,” the woman on the other end of the line said coldly.

“Well, supplies are limited so if you change your mind, you’ll want to call back soon!” Cherry was naturally misanthropic so the fact she’d not only landed a job at the call center but had been there for two years and could still work up an almost genuine-sounding enthusiasm should constitute a miracle.

“No, I don’t want a ‘candy calender.’ I just want to cancel my son’s subscription.” She sounded serious, annoyed. And clearly wanted to get off the phone as quickly as possible. Cherry now wanted to get off the phone, too.

“Oh-uh. Your son’s subscription?” Cherry asked awkwardly. Son — now that’s something Cherry had never heard in her 742 days as an employee at the costumer service help desk.

The woman on the phone answered in the affirmative.

Awkwardly Cherry looked around to see if any of her coworkers were eavesdropping, and then almost whispered into the receiver: “Uh, ma’am, are you aware that I-Candy is kind of … well, uh … an adult company?”

“Yes, I know it’s an ‘adult company’ and that my 18-year-old son was looking at pornography. But what pisses me off is that he was stupid enough to drain every penny from his savings account on it!”

“Oh,” said Cherry. She hadn’t been taught the correct response to this problem in training.

“He signed up for the two-week trial and didn’t bother to cancel his subscription! So he’s making his mother — his mother! — do it because he has a ‘phone phobia.'”

“Oh-uh,” Cherry didn’t know what else to say. This wasn’t one of the usual customer complaints. She was now completely off script. But the mom seemed to be monologuing just find without any help.

“My son has a ‘phone phobia’,” the angry mother on the other line continued, “that’s so bad that he’d rather tell his mother — his mother who told him that as long as I was paying for the internet he was not allowed to use it to look at that filth — that he’d drained his bank account looking at pornography than just call and cancel his subscription, himself. But he can live webcam with strange women without his ‘phobia’ kicking in? I can’t even begin to understand that!” She ended with a frustrated “uhhhhh!

“Yeah, that is … confusing,” Cherry admitted truthfully.

At this point Peach had peeked over the cubicle wall that separated their desks to see if Cherry was busy and noticed that Cherry was making a very strange face.

When Cherry caught Peach’s eye all she could think to do was mouth the words “customer’s mother” — as if it was a synonym for “HELP ME!” — while pointing in shock at her headset.

Peach shrieked: “A mother?!” They were used to all kinds of customers. They were even used to sexual harassment — in fact, it was pretty much just part of the job (their assigned work names seemed to even encourage it). But no one had ever even heard of a mother calling the I-Candy customer service line.

“She wants to cancel her son’s cam subscription,” Cherry mouthed at Peach, who only shrieked louder.

“Guys!” Peach announced to the whole office, “Cherry’s on the phone with a customer’s mother!” The cubicle dwellers began popping up like meerkats out of their holes; everyone stared at poor Cherry as she tried to maintain her pep despite the extreme awkwardness of the situation.

Ten minutes later the unusual, strange, uncomfortable, no-good phone call somehow came to an end. The subscription was cancelled and both parties were, undoubtedly, relieved to be off the phone. At this point the entire office had completely stopped working — someone’s mother had called!

Sugar, the current supervisor on the floor, told Cherry she could take her 10 minute break early so she’d have a few moments to recover from the shock before her next call. And as she stood by the water cooler on break, recounting the strange thing that had just happened to her coworkers — each one laughing so hard they were almost in tears — it wasn’t dull.

Even though Peach still ate her usual, boring ham sandwich without mustard and no-one-cares-who was still pregnant or had gotten back together with their ex, work that day certainly wasn’t boring.

The next day, when Cherry arrived at work, someone had posted a sign on the office wall. It read:

Number of work days without a customer’s mother calling: 1